Call it a no-brainer: Sake and sushi are a perfect match. But sake pairs with all seafood, often better than white wine, as a matter of fact. And it’s not just because sake and sushi were both born in Japan. There are scientific factors at play that make rice wine the ideal complement to seafood, Japanese-style and beyond.
Master sake makers called toji have spent centuries perfecting their art. Just like Western winemakers and brewers, they have come to understand that geographical factors like water, soil and weather can have a huge impact on the raw ingredients that go into their liquid masterpieces.
Along the Japanese coast, toji evolved their sake to match the delectable things that fisherman brought home from the sea -- tuna, salmon, squid, crab, sea urchin and shrimp. In the mountains, they created sake that pairs perfectly with freshwater fish, eels and crayfish.
They may not have used the modern scientific terms, but the sake masters of old certainly knew there was something unique about the combination. Technically, it’s amino acids - a specific variety called “umami constituents” that are found in both rice and many kinds of seafood (as well as soy sauce and seaweed). When these amino acids come together as sake and sushi, the flavors elevate in intensity.
Meanwhile, there’s another scientific process at work. Because the water used to make sake is extremely low in iron, combining it with seafood helps reduce the fishy smell, resulting in a much more pleasant olfactory experience.
Beer, wine and other libations can’t do that. White wine can actually enhance the smells and tastes we associate with “fishiness,” because it contains iron and sulfite. “Sake and seafood are a perfect match,” said Chris Johnson, a certified sake sommelier.
“Sake has low acidity, so we pair it differently than wine. We can find textural pairings, flavor pairings, aroma pairings and, best of all, sake has umami. So when we pair it with seafood it helps to elevate all the nuances in the seafood and the notes achieved from the preparation techniques as well.”
Southland diners can try the combination for themselves at a sake and seafood event at Rappahannock Oyster Bar ROW DTLA, a historic multi-use collective in downtown’s Fashion District, Nov. 22-24.
During the event, Rappahannock will offer two contrasting dining areas: an “ordinary” space where guests can enjoy seafood and wine pairings, and an “escape the ordinary” pop-up space where they can delve into seafood and sake pairings.
Just like any spirit, there are many different types of sake.
Futsū-shu is the most basic type of sake, equivalent to table wine and found at almost every Japanese restaurant. On the other hand, tokutei meishō-shu are top-shelf, handcrafted sakes that aren’t necessarily offered everywhere that sushi and sashimi are served.
“It really depends on the item and the quality of the futsū-shu,” said Johnson, when asked about which type of sake a diner should choose. “There are some amazing Iutsū-shu out there that pair wonderfully with seafood. Just as local table wine in France can be wonderful, so can some ordinary sake.”
But the safest bet, He says, is matching seafood with handcrafted sakes. Premium sake makers like Junmai, Honjozo, Ginjo and Daiginjo must adhere to regulations that result in a higher quality product. Which of those labels works best with different types of seafood? Johnson says that depends on how the protein and its preparation.
“A very delicate simply sauteed dover sole will seek out a Daiginjo to dance with. A floral west coast oyster might want to interact with a Ginjo. Their friends from the East Coast with more brine may enjoy the company of a Honjozo. A pan-fried catfish may hunker down with a Junmai,” mused Johnson.
“Pairing with sake is like wine in that we have many options and many flavor profiles. The key is that umami and low acidity allowing the sake to pair with many versions of seafood.”
-Joe Yogerst, Custom Publishing Writer